“So I shall die,” said the little mermaid, “and as the foam of the sea I shall be driven about never again to hear the music of the waves, or to see the pretty flowers nor the red sun. Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?”
--"The Little Mermaid"
The nature of Byleth's regret was such that, despite the fact that her choices would not have been different, she found herself wishing she'd lingered over her decision more when she had been at that first crossroads.
It had seemed, at the time, that she had been steeping in her desire to see Dimitri again for years, and when Sothis offered her the means to do so, Byleth could not very well turn it down.
But if she had taken the time to consider-- if she had taken the time to hesitate, maybe it would have occurred to her to say something to her father: ask for his blessing, or take her farewells. Either possibility would have soothed her more now, that she was at yet another crossroads.
She wished for nothing so much as to follow Dimitri wherever he went. The map in the library, helpfully hanging on the wall with the legend helpfully showing which color corresponded to each country, also showed Derdriu at the opposite end of the continent. If Dimitri was going there, then Byleth would follow. Whatever it took, she would follow.
Yet she still found herself at the beach, the flower crown of wilted dandelions in her hands hanging heavier than was justified.
The sea thrashed mercilessly against the shore. She had always considered it an indifferent beast, as invisible to her as the air was to humans, yet now Byleth could understand it being described as angry. The storms were not far off.
If it was cowardice that she could not approach the waves, it was not a feeling Byleth could master just yet. Her chest was hollow, but her feet were leaden. She stood on the beach unmoving for a long time before Dedue found her.
"We are to leave soon," Dedue said, standing next to Byleth and looking in the same direction. "If His Majesty is not persuaded to your value as his retainer, you may yet come along as part of his retinue. It would be no burden, with all the companions he is already taking."
"I would go either way," she said.
"Even if he told you to stay?"
Dedue did not quite smile, and he did not say anything, but Byleth saw from the corner of her eye how he looked down.
"This is something His Majesty struggles with as well," Dedue remarked quietly. It felt disconnected from the previous subject, and so Byleth looked to Dedue in question. He gestured to the flower crown in her hands. "He has difficulty asking for help. You need not follow in his example. Have we not given you aid even unasked?"
"And it's a debt I may never manage to pay back," Byleth said.
"Regardless, aid must be rendered," Dedue replied. Gently, he took the flower crown from her hands. "Into the waves?"
"...Thank you, Dedue."
"Thanks are not necessary," he said. And though his face was chiseled stone most of the time, there was yet something soft in it as he told her this.
Byleth had grown used to a life wandering about from place to place. But that had been before, when she and Jeralt could travel the sea floor from end to end with nothing but the swords strapped to their back, and make a good living of it. Possessions were transitory things to the merfolk: even the seashells braided into their hair could be lost by whims of fate. Status was what the merfolk preferred to hoard.
Yet, being human seemed to be nothing but a life spent in accumulation of accoutrements: clothing to shield the body from cold or injury, brushes and soaps and varied implements for its upkeep, trinkets to keep it well-adorned...
All these things Byleth had acquired over her stay at the summer palace, but so easily they had been given that she did not know which she ought to take along and which were replaceable.
Nobody had taught her to pack a bag.
She stared at the trunk before her, provided so that she may pack her possession, and froze in the face of its emptiness. Would everything fit? Would the items need to be arranged a certain way? What did she need to take?
'Calm yourself!' Sothis chided. 'This really is nothing to get yourself all puffed up over. You can ask someone for advice, you know. Try the tiny red one! She seems helpful.'
Byleth would have, but she suspected Annette was just as overwhelmed by the task as she was. She had seen Annette rushing between the library and her room with an armful of books, with a panicked chant of 'oh no oh no oh no' under her breath. That probably boded ill of her preparations for the upcoming journey.
But Byleth could see the wisdom in asking someone else for advice, so she left the disarray of her room to go to Mercedes'.
The palace halls seemed more full than ever, with the servants being pulled into the preparations for the road as much as the palace guests, if not moreso. There was no sense of chaos to the agitation, but more like a school of fish in motion, coordinated in all their turns.
When Byleth arrived to Mercedes' room, the door was open, and Byleth stopped in the threshold to realize that perhaps this was not the best place to come for advice. If Byleth had made a mess of her own possessions, at least it was because she did not know any better.
She had no idea how to explain the fact that Mercedes' room seemed to have undergone some kind of minor explosion.
"Oh, you startled me!" Mercedes declared, twisting around from where she was digging through a drawer. She turned with a stack of stockings in her arms, though Byleth was more distracted by another pair of stockings hanging over a nearby lamp, dangerously close to igniting.
"I just wanted to ask something," Byleth said, "but I'm sorry to bother you."
"It's no bother at all!" Mercedes rushed to assure her. "I-- oh, pardon the mess," she added, with a little wince. "I'm always a bit of a disaster when I'm trying to pack. I hope you are doing better. What did you want to ask?"
"I... Should I... be packing something in particular?" Byleth said carefully, now distracted by a small cluster of hairbrushes on Mercedes' end table.
"Nothing special, I don't think," Mercedes replied with a smile. "The weather in Deirdriu will be mild even for winter, but we'll be travelling through less hospitable lands. I would suggest packing anything light on the bottom, and anything you'll be changing into on top. Other than that, I suppose it's just the ordinary things..."
Thankfully, Mercedes went on to ennumerate the ordinary things for the road, rambling on as she packed her own trunk. Byleth offered to help with this task, if only to get a better look at how it was done, but after they were done, and Mercedes swung the lid closed on her trunk with a deep sigh, the mood turned bittersweet.
"I'll miss this place," she said. "Dimitri seemed at peace, at least for a while."
Byleth did not know how to reply to that; peace was not what she would have named his state that first time she saw him on the beach. But Dimitri's torments seemed quiet and self-contained, and perhaps that was not usually the case for him. Out of sight and out of mind.
"I suppose I will miss this place too," Byleth said.
Mercedes smiled, but it seemed a very particular smile meant to convey something that Byleth did not quite catch.
They departed at dawn.
Byleth, as she did not know to ride a horse, was relegated to a carriage. She was not terribly pleased about this, but she also did not like the empty-soul gazes of the horses either, or their disturbingly square teeth, so she had no real grounds for protest. Dimitri, who did like horses, rode up front and cheerfully enough at the beginning of the journey. Because the weather held for two days before the downpours started.
Drenched and with his cloak smelling like wet fur, Dimitri ended up in the same carriage as Byleth when Dedue insisted it was undignified of a king to be pelted with rain all day.
His hair was wet, and stuck to his forehead even as he shook his head, so he raked it back.
Byleth felt the phantom pain of a heartbeat--her pulse quickened as she remembered what he looked like laid out on a beach and unconscious. Her lips remembered the taste of drying salt as she kissed along his brow. It was a curious ache, and she couldn't tell if she was pained or pleased by the memory.
"Are you well?" Dimitri asked, his hair piled haphazardly on one side, while the strings of his eyepatch kept it plastered to his side on the other.
"Are you?" Byleth asked, not knowing what would make him think she was unwell.
He, on the other hand, was crowded at the very end of the bench across from her, at the farthest point from her possible while still being inside the carriage. His face tinged red as he looked away.
"I am fine," he said. "Quite well. Quite--" He cut off, cleared his throat, continued to avoid her gaze. "I am sorry to intrude."
"Is this not your carriage?" Byleth asked carefully, because she had concluded previously that it had to be.
"It is, but I do not regularly use it," he said, and his gaze darted about the interior, refusing to settle on anything. "You would have been free to have it to yourself for the entirety of the journey if it hadn't started raining."
"It was lonelier before you," Byleth said quietly, and realized with a start that it was true.
Had she ever cared for someone before Dimitri? Only her father, and he had been a fixture in her life since her spawning, so he had never felt as anything less than an extension of herself.
Dimitri was... someone so other than herself. A light she followed out of her comfort zone. Something warm when warmth was yet unfamiliar. She felt him in every limb, and she wondered if this was what Sothis meant about loving someone even without a heart.
"Then," Dimitri said carefully, "I will be honored to keep you company."
And then he smiled, and there was that warmth again.